Streaming Guides

When to Talk to Your Child About Movies Expiring On Netflix

By  · Published on January 22nd, 2016

The Walt Disney Co.

It’s time to talk about the flying elephant in the room. Netflix has changed the way we see ownership of movies, and younger generations are sure to feel more entitlement as a result. There was a time when the service actually promised a future of everything we want at our fingertips, literally, via remote control. Now they are focused on original programming and constantly let their best catalog titles expire. Netflix has become just another premium cable channel, one without a program schedule, only on-demand listings.

Longtime subscribers, such as myself, may whine about movies leaving the streaming service each month, but it’s never something worth getting legitimately upset about. Sure, there’s disappointment in a brand that once made me feel okay about never wanting to physically own a copy of a movie, not when I could find everything on disc or streaming with relative ease and speed, and I forever had thousands of unseen titles to get to before I’d ever have interest in revisiting something I’d already watched. But I’m a grown-ass adult and can cope with the changes, including movies disappearing from the DVD library for good, and even the increased costs.

My kids, on the other hand, are not so understanding. Because they’re kids. They’ve lived their entire, brief lives with Netflix Watch Instantly. Some of their favorite movies started streaming there before they were even born. As I’ve mentioned in the past, my son loves Dumbo the most. The animated classic became available, along with other Disney titles, on December 4, 2012, when he was only a few months old. When he started watching movies, it became his most common selection (and toddlers these days can handle a remote or an iPad and navigate a Netflix menu before they can handle eating utensils). Now it’s gone.

“I want to watch Dumbo,” he said on a day like any other. But when I went to put it on, as usual, it wasn’t there. It expired, along with other Disney titles, on January 4th. I’d somehow missed the warnings. And while my wife and I had joked for years about the day it would disappear (aka Operation Dumbo Dropped), we’d never actually prepared for it. “It’s not available anymore, buddy,” I consolingly answered on the day of discovery and tears. “Why?” “It expired.” “Why?” “Netflix must have lost their deal with Disney.” “Why?” “I don’t know, son, I just don’t know.”

Actually, there was probably some yelling in the mix, too. “No! I want it now!” Veruca Salt style. He is a “three-nager,” after all, that age when all kids are spoiled brats. But of course my son is perfect and always adorable, never a monster. Regardless, the fact is that he doesn’t comprehend distribution deals. Few adults do these days. “Windows” or “platforms” are one thing and one thing only when you’re three. Give him extra definitions and I might as well have raised him Dogtooth style and then suddenly attempted proper reeducation.

“Dude, just buy it,” said many when I tweeted about the Dumbo disappointment. Sure, that’s an easy solution, but I don’t like discs, which the kids will probably scratch immediately anyway, and I still don’t trust the whole digital copy thing. Not for $20. Yeah, I suppose I’m stubborn and also cheap. But I also get mad when someone tells me that if I can afford Netflix then I can afford to buy a movie. That’s not necessarily true, if I only had $8 to spend on entertainment a month. Also, if I was told the same thing for every movie and TV show we watch on Netflix, it would definitely not be the case.

This isn’t just about Netflix. The kids today are also spoiled by VOD in general, as well as DVRs. God forbid we ever accidentally delete the copy of Frozen we taped two years ago. And it’s a whole ordeal when my son wants to watch one of the few cartoons he’s addicted to that regularly airs on TV but for some reason isn’t offered free on demand (ahem, The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!). Okay, okay, I admit it, I’m the one who is really spoiled by these things. The kids are, innocently, just used to them.

In my day – yes, I’m going there – we simply watched whatever was on HBO and we liked it. Fortunately, the channel showed the same movies a lot. A lot. My Dumbo was probably Savannah Smiles, a movie that eventually left the program schedule and pretty much stopped existing as far as I knew (it’s now available digitally from Amazon but still not in HD). Or Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, which also wasn’t easily watched for much of my adolescent life.

When to Talk to Your Child About Spoilers

I could buy Dumbo in some form now, but sometimes you just have to say goodbye to things you loved as a child – while still a child, that is, until nostalgia kicks in and you’re re-watching Dumbo (or Emmet Otter) regularly as an adult. It’s probably for the best for him to forget about that particular movie anyway, before Tim Burton’s live-action remake arrives and disappoints him in other ways.

Instead, we’ll pay our respects and flush this one down the toilet. But I’ll also be more mindful of Netflix’s expiration dates in the future, so I can plan to give the kids the talk in advance next time and prepare them for the departure of their beloved animated feature and give them more time to let it go.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.